The People Vs. Joe Perry: The Aerosmith guitar hero on rock’n’roll advice, Wayne’s World and the future

As Hollywood Vampires prepare for their UK return in July, Aerosmith gear up to mark 50 years of their self-titled debut, and his reloaded sixth solo album Sweetzerland Manifesto MKII readies for release, we invited you to send your most burning questions to legendary guitarist Joe Perry...

The People Vs. Joe Perry: The Aerosmith guitar hero on rock’n’roll advice, Wayne’s World and the future
Sam Law

As much as Joe Perry has accomplished over five decades at the forefront of rock, he’s still hungry for more.

Joining us at lunchtime on a sunny Thursday, the Aerosmith and Hollywood Vampires guitar hero enthuses that life at his winter home in Sarasota, Florida is “like being on vacation every day” – Permanent Vacation, Joe, surely – but flashes of the Bostonian kid who grew up destined for stardom far north of the Mason-Dixon line constantly slip through. Still trying to get to the bottom of the mystery that is the electric guitar, he’d far rather talk shop than regale us with tales of fame and fortune. When faced with big questions about music and the industry, he tackles them with the wonder and humility of a fan rather than the swagger of a hotshot who played the game and won. And, when conversation moves to the recent loss of the late, great Jeff Beck, Joe’s tone is darkened by grief, not at the loss of a contemporary, but his very own hero.

Accordingly, he takes to fielding questions from his own fanbase with an enthusiasm and energy that few of his peers would match. “It sounds exciting to me,” he grins. “Just what I need to lift my afternoon!”

So let’s begin...

Henry asks… What’s the biggest difference between playing with Aerosmith and Hollywood Vampires?
“In some ways there can be really drastic differences. In Aerosmith, I’m playing with guys I’ve known and grown up with over the last 50 years. We’re a family. We’ve had our squabbles, to the point where I had to leave for a while, but if anyone came at us from the outside, we would group together as that band of five. We had some great moments – some incredible moments – but we had our struggles, too. We grew up from being kids in the garage to living this incredibly chequered life.

“With the Vampires, it feels like everybody has already been through all of those things in their own lives. I mean, I’ve known Alice [Cooper, Hollywood Vampires vocalist] since we met at the premiere of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie [in 1978]. I was at his manager’s house when I called Steven [Tyler, Aerosmith vocalist] to get the band back together. We go a long way back. But in the Vampires, it’s like a garage band of buddies who’ve already paid their dues: a labour of love that came along where we’re just out there doing what we do. There’s no pressure. We’re not out there trying to ‘make it’. We’re not trying to do anything but make great music and bring along anyone who cares to listen.

“Of course, there are similarities between the bands, too, in how they stand for rock’n’roll and not knowing what’s going to happen until you step onto the stage: saying, ‘We’ve done our homework, so let’s see what happens when we get out there and roll the dice!’”

Jessica asks… As an artist with multiple bands and a solo career, do you specifically write for each act or do you find yourself just jamming to see where it leads you?
“I’m not gonna swing too far off my path, so to speak: my little pie-section of rock’n’roll. Sure, if I’m working on a movie soundtrack, with classically-trained musicians who’re interested in the spontaneity that I bring, that’s something that pulls me out of my comfort zone. That’s a whole other thing. But if I’m just riffing, there are parts I wrote for the Vampires that could’ve gone to Aerosmith or even my solo stuff. With the Vampires, there’re certain vibes and certain types of lyrics that we want. With Aerosmith, we tend to write the music first, then massage it with Steven and go to the lyrics. Plus, playing with guys like Johnny [Depp, Hollywood Vampires guitarist] and Tommy [Henriksen, Hollywood Vampires drummer] brings out different things. In the end, it’s always about working with the person next to you.”

Paul asks… It’s the 50th anniversary of Aerosmith’s self-titled debut this year. Having rocked out over five decades, what would you say was the ultimate era for rock?
“I would say the ’60s and ’70s. That was [the time of] day-to-day, in-the-trenches rock’n’roll. You lived and died by how you played onstage. You could go out there and have a great single that was on top of the charts, but if you couldn’t deliver a great show live, you’d be gone, because there were all these other bands that could. It was when there was real competition between bands on the same bill, with guys like The Who and Led Zeppelin – who you’d consider the bedrock of classic rock – still playing theatres and clubs. It was about having your feet on the ground, standing in front of the fans, delivering.

“Also, it was when the electric guitar was developing into what we know today. It was coming into its own, being pushed ahead by guys like Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, who were taking this instrument designed to sound clean and making it louder, more distorted. With every album, every performance, they were making sounds that people had never heard before.”

Julia asks… I’m a teenage musician from Boston. Do you have any advice for someone who is currently in the spot that you once were?
“It’s all about the song and your live presentation. Those are the only things that you can really control. You could start off a band with a million-dollar budget, but no amount of money is going to get people to like your songs. Only [through writing and performance] can you control how your audience to responds. That was the focus way back when, and that’s still the focus now. The most important thing is having a piece of music that excites people and makes them want to listen to it again. It’s not about [instrumental] technique. It’s about giving people something they like. Beyond that, get out there and play live as much as you can!”

Hayley asks… Is there an album that you’d like to play in full on tour?
“The closest we ever got to that was doing a version of Toys [In The Attic, 1975] front-to-back, but after we tried it a couple of times live, we realised that to maintain the energy of the show we’d have to drop a couple of songs out. It wasn’t exciting enough, for me. There are other songs that people would rather get to hear than being able to say they saw that album played in full. Any time you perform, you’ve got to treat it as the one time you get to play in front of that audience. You don’t know when you’re going to be back.”

Aaron asks… What was it like being on Wayne’s World?
“Every time we did something like that, it was so fun because it was so out of our regular day-to-day of ‘go in the studio; write the songs; go on the road; play the songs’. To be asked to do Wayne’s World was special. We didn’t know that when we agreed to do the original skit on Saturday Night Live that it would lead to us being in the movies. It was just lots of fun to be there and to meet guys we’d only ever seen on TV!”

Andy asks… How cool was it to feature in one of The Simpsons’ most iconic episodes, Flaming Moe’s?
“It was really special to see how they put that show together. Being in the room with all the other voices was just fascinating. They had this storyline and you’d get in the room to talk to each other the way you normally would. Then they’d send that off to the artists who would draw the cartoon around the dialogue. Getting to find out the processes that go into those things is a big part of the fun of doing them!”

Jskellington07 asks… If you hadn’t gotten into music, what do you think you'd be doing right now?
“I don’t know! I wasn’t left with too many choices in that area. I’m a first-generation American, whose grandparents all came over from Italy and Portugal. Anything that looked remotely rebellious wasn’t going to fly in my family. I even had to fight to get my first really playable guitar when I was 17 or 18. I definitely didn’t want to work in a factory – which I did for a couple of years. I guess I was already interested in nature and being out on the ocean, so I would’ve found my way out there swabbing the decks on a research vessel or something. That was kinda what I’d planned to do until I got hit over the head with rock’n’roll!”

Luis asks… Will you release the Guitar Hero re-recordings on record?
“That’s a question out of left field! I don’t know, but I’m going to make a note and speak to my guys about it. That’s a really interesting chunk of work. We’re talking about doing a new record, but there are so many undiscovered versions of the songs in that Aerosmith catalogue. There’s a lot of that stuff that we’re looking at now: the archives, little chunks of music, live recordings. Thanks for reminding me of those!”

Mary asks… How do you think digital platforms have impacted today’s music? How should ‘classic’ acts adapt?
“I think it’s all still about the song, whether it’s rock, hip-hop or dance music. I remember the old Dick Clark show where they’d have all these teenagers listening to the songs in the charts and rating by whether you could dance to them. You could stick a drum-machine up there and dance to it. Obviously you need lyrics and a melody to make it interesting: something you can sing along to. But you need that hook, in the end. If there’s a rhythm that’ll get you tapping your fingers on the steering wheel, that could be it.”

Jacquelyn asks… Which artists are you listening to these days?
“I’ve been listening to some Django Reinhardt recently, and some of the pop hits of the 1950s like Link Wray. I’m fascinated by the evolution of the electric guitar and listening to the recordings of how they got those sounds and how it developed into the instrument we know now. No-one could’ve imagined it in the ’40s and ’50s. The amplifiers were invented not to distort, but to make the instruments louder. But what happened by a series of accidents and mistakes was that you ended up with an instrument where if you get a couple of guys together, you can create enough sound for a 20,000-seat arena. One-hundred years ago, to have that effect, you’d need a 100-piece orchestra. Plus, the electric guitar soundtracked a whole generation of revolution. It started with The Beatles: four guys, two guitars, a bass and drums and their incredible voices were able to turn the whole world upside down.”

Sam asks… We’ve heard the rumours swirling about Sweetzerland Manifesto MKII. What can we expect?
“There were some songs that were written after the first one came out that are going to be the lead tracks. One of them has [The Black Crowes’] Chris Robinson singing, the other has [Van Halen/Extreme’s] Gary Cherone. Then there’s an instrumental on there called The Man With The Golden Arm which was the theme song to an old Sinatra movie. It’s killer. There are a couple of other songs that we didn’t put on the first record, as well as four or five from the first to fill it out as a whole album. And it’ll be released as a vinyl. I got a box of them the other day and it was so cool to pick them up as an actual album with the artwork and all the pictures of everyone who played on it – just a snapshot of what went on up there at Sweetzerland. It just warmed my heart to actually hold an album. It feels like so much more a fan-oriented piece of work.”

Kyle asks… A lot has happened since your book Rocks came out in 2014. Would you ever consider writing an addendum to catch us up on recent years?
“Not only would I add more to it, I’d probably take it from the beginning again. My outlook on life has changed. It goes back to the old saying: ‘I wish I knew then what I do now.’ Even in the last decade or two my outlook on things has gotten broader. The thought had crossed my mind to do an updated version of the book, but it’s low down my list of priorities right now. I’m still busy [building] the future!”

Jo asks… With guitar hero status long since achieved, is there anything else left to accomplish?
“I appreciate when people call me a guitar hero, but I’m really just another fan in the crowd who happens to be on this side of the stage. I’m so interested in the evolution of the electric guitar. My basement is full of prototype speakers and amps trying to replicate the kind they used in the ’50s, trying to recreate that sound that’s kinda basic and bare bones and leaves so much of it in your hands with how you play. The more effects, the more distortion, the more compression, the less important the sound of the actual guitar becomes. The next time people come to see me play, I think they’ll notice the difference because of that [research]. It’s all about what you do onstage. In the end, you’re only as good as your next show!”

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